Last week I was infuriated to read about a head teacher in Oxford who had sent a letter to girls in their sixth form stating that they shouldn’t take days off school during their periods because “inconvenience is all part of being a woman’. The story featured in the Telegraph, among others, and was reported on by Alice Hall. She went on to write –

In the email Dr Jackie Watson, vice principal and head of sixth form, wrote that girls would not be able to take sick days from work in the future on account of their period, so should not expect to take them from school. The message was also sent to Year 12 boys.

Watson urged pupils not to miss out on their education. She wrote: “Any female student asking to be sent home ‘ill’ or phoning in ‘ill’ who has a period will not find this is a suitable excuse. Learning to deal with monthly inconvenience is all part of being a woman, I’m afraid.”

The idea that we should ‘cope’ or ‘put up with’ pain and discomfort as it’s just part of being a woman, is completely wrong. Indoctrinating young women with these ideas is exactly the opposite message we should be sending them. Words like this have a negative impact on us, that then sets us up for the rest of our lives.  Just take a look at how hard we find it to navigate menopause and have conversations about that, let alone find solutions to symptoms. Where does it start? Periods.

Menopause marks the end of our periods, puberty marks the start.

We have numerous biological rhythms we should be taking note of. Our circadian rhythm comes high on the list as we all know that good sleep patterns are essential for great health. There are other types of rhythms in animals, known as infradian, which last longer than 24 hours. Our menstrual cycle is one of them.

In fact, some doctors think your period should be a fifth vital sign. Menstrual cycle changes or abnormalities can be a clear first symptom of a number of women’s health issues.

As stated in a recent BMJ article,

The menstrual cycle holds many clues into the health of a teenage girl and young woman and a full assessment should not be overlooked’.

However, if we are not being encouraged to tune in to our own cycle, how do we know what our ‘normal’ is! We’re not going to be inclined to mention it if we are getting messages loud and clear to ‘put up and shut up’.

There are 4 phases to our menstrual cycle, each with it’s own unique combination of hormones. These monthly variations result in fluctuating energy levels, differing ability to concentrate and how we deal with stress. What we eat during those phases can have a huge impact on how we are able to manage our symptoms, which has a direct result on productivity and performance. How we move, or not, during the cycle also has a fundamental effect on how we feel and therefore how we ‘cope’.

Latest research shows that 90% of women are affected by pre-menstrual tension (PMT/PMS). Yet for decades our reproductive years are under researched and barley spoken about. When leaders in our education system continue to support this vicious cycle it’s hardly surprising.

What’s your normal?

Educating young women on their hormones and cycles would undoubtedly help them reach their full potential and move into their reproductive years well informed and able to thrive. As a head teacher I’m pretty sure if the governing body were knocking on my door asking about, attendance, grades and performance, I’d be looking at every which way to support my pupils.

Perhaps in the near future a letter to a mixed ed cohort could read,

“Dear Boys and Girls of the Sixth Form,

I hope you enjoyed the recent series of lectures on hormones, health and well-being. Of course we will be doing as much as we can to provide on-going support and advice from the whole school community on how we can maximise your wellness potential during your time with us.

One of the core topics covered was of course menstruation. As you will have learnt, a solid nutritional program is very important to maintain your energy levels and ability to concentrate. Remember ‘modern foods cause modern diseases’, so choose wisely. Be sure to keep a diary of your cycle so you can maximise your study time during the phases that suit you best. Keeping active at optimum times of the month will enable you to manage symptoms more effectively.

Period pains do occur, we know that, and as the boys will have discovered can be very uncomfortable. I believe the labour simulator at its lowest setting is a very good way of experiencing a mild period pain. You will also have learnt that extreme pains are not normal, and we will certainly help you get the right medical guidance if you find yourself unable to manage your studies as a result.

As outlined you can use all these very simple, sensible measures to reduce the negative impact they may have on you, and we encourage you to apply as many of these steps as you are able, as they will undoubtedly enable you to take an active and productive role in school life. Do please get in contact with your allocated health and well-being mentor if you need further help.”

I guess that’s something to aim for.

We need to fix the negative perceptions we have created around our reproductive years and beyond. I’ve wondered for such a long time why we don’t talk about menopause. If we’re talking about periods the wrong way, surely there’s the root cause. If we are telling young girls the wrong things at the wrong time, in the wrong tone, we are doing them a serious injustice when it comes to future health and well-being choices.

We need to keep the conversation going around menopause, but we need to talk periods as well.